The Side-Effect Effect in Children Is Robust and Not Specific to the Moral Status of Action Effects

PLoS ONE 10:1-10 (2015)
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Abstract

Adults’ intentionality judgments regarding an action are influenced by their moral evaluation of this action. This is clearly indicated in the so-called side-effect effect: when told about an action (e.g. implementing a business plan) with an intended primary effect (e.g. raise profits) and a foreseen side effect (e.g. harming/helping the environment), subjects tend to interpret the bringing about of the side effect more often as intentional when it is negative (harming the environment) than when it is positive (helping the environment). From a cognitive point of view, it is unclear whether the side-effect effect is driven by the moral status of the side effects specifically, or rather more generally by its normative status. And from a developmental point of view, little is known about the ontogenetic origins of the effect. The present study therefore explored the cognitive foundations and the ontogenetic origins of the side-effect effect by testing 4-to 5-year-old children with scenarios in which a side effect was in accordance with/violated a norm. Crucially, the status of the norm was varied to be conventional or moral. Children rated the bringing about of side-effects as more intentional when it broke a norm than when it accorded with a norm irrespective of the type of norm. The side-effect effect is thus an early-developing, more general and pervasive phenomenon, not restricted to morally relevant side effects.

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